Originally Published March 1, 2006
The CSUN Theater Department’s presentation of the adaptation of the New York Times best-selling book “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich proved to be a pleasant surprise indeed.
Ehrenreich wrote her book based on her real-life undercover work as a woman trying to survive on minimum wage in America. Her journey took her to Florida, Maine and Minnesota where she worked at a diner, a cleaning service and an omnious retail giant – not so subtly dubbed Mall-Mart in the theatrical version directed by Ellyn Gersh Lerner.
All the actors in the show played multiple roles, except for Heather Ramey, who played the role of Barbara. This caused a bit of confusion and difficulty in learning and remembering names and creating a connection with the characters.
The soft lighting and countless number of spotlights on Ehrenreich allowed the audience to enjoy an intimate setting with the cast. Only a handful of key props were used throughout the play, which were rotated after every scene by the actors as they distracted the audience with their simple footwork to tunes such as “You Can Get It If You Really Want” by Desmond Dekker.
The costumes were not much more than khakis and polo shirts throughout the play. However, settings such as diners and retail stores do not require special ensembles. It gave a realistic quality to the scenes and allowed the audience to focus on the stories of the detailed characters.
The play was adapted well from the book. It utilized key elements from the book that displayed difficulties of surviving and making ends meet in a minimum wage lifestyle. The nearly three-hour show seemed to fly by with the sometimes sarcastic yet witty comments that kept most of the audience amused. Although Ehrenreich’s book is not comedic, the interpretation is much more entertaining.
Facts about poverty and minimum wage in this country were thrown out at poignant moments throughout the play by Ehrenreich’s character, which provided a factual background to the dramatized story.
The opening scene found Ehrenreich training for a job at “Kenny’s Diner” in Key West, Florida, before flashing back to her real life as a journalist, as she presents the idea of the story to her editor.
Although, the first scene introduced the audience to Barbara’s character, Verity Branco’s role as “Gail,” a waitress at the diner, stole the show. Branco delivered a very believable performance as a sassy waitress with a southern accent. She had great comedic timing and a natural ability to draw the audience into her performance.
Ramey’s satisfactory interpretation of Ehrenreich’s character was highlighted by emotional outbursts that touched and impressed the audience. She carried herself well on stage even through some minor script foul-ups.
Many scenes spotlighted Barbara as she commentated on something that just happened. It felt like a reality show that edits a scene so that contestants are shown telling all their inner most thoughts in a secret room.
During the second act, the play came to a sudden halt by Branco. Initially, the interruption seems scripted and just a confusing tactic to get the audience wondering if this is real. However, questions were thrown out to the audience by the cast regarding hired help and how much people pay to have their homes cleaned, which allowed the actors to speak freely. Although, audience interaction during a play seems unusual, it turned out to be a success.
Overall, the play is very enjoyable. The script stayed true to the book and the props and costumes did not overshadow the important message of Ehrenreich’s story.
The show will run through March 5 at the Little Theatre. Contact the Theater Department for further details.
Taline Helwajian can be contacted at Tmh70066@csun.edu.